Editor’s note: This story will be updated throughout the day.
Updated 3:10 p.m. EST
CENTREVILLE, Ala. (BP)–At least five churches — four Southern Baptist — in an Alabama county were destroyed or damaged apparently by arsonists Thursday night and Friday morning, and a fire at a sixth church in a neighboring county is being investigated.
Rehobeth Baptist Church in Randolph, Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield and Pleasant Sabine in Centreville were destroyed and burned to the ground, while Antioch Baptist Church in Centreville and Old Union Baptist near Randolph were damaged. All but Pleasant Sabine are Southern Baptist, and all five are located in Bibb County.
“The sheriff’s department and the ABI (Alabama Bureau of Investigation) is treating it as arson, and obviously they’ve got some clues as to that,” Steve Patrick, director of missions for the Bibb County Baptist Association, told Baptist Press.
Investigators are looking closely at how the fire was started in the two churches that weren’t destroyed, said Patrick, who added it appeared “the back door was kicked in and the fire was set around the pulpit area” in the churches.
“We believe it’s somebody that has a vendetta against Christianity in general, maybe Baptist churches in particular,” said Patrick, who requested prayer for the churches as well as for the individual or individuals who started the fires.
All four SBC churches, Patrick said, run less than 100 on Sunday mornings, and all five churches that were affected are located within 10-15 miles of one another.
Meanwhile, a sixth church, New Harmony Church (non-SBC) in neighboring Chilton County, was damaged by a fire Thursday afternoon, The Clanton Advertiser reported. That church burned just before sunset; the fires at the other churches appear to have been set sometime during the night.
The Antioch Baptist fire, Patrick said he was told, went out by itself. The Old Union Baptist fire, he said, was extinguished after a deacon that lives near the church noticed the fire.
Members of all the Bibb County churches, Patrick said, are “a little bit in shock, but they’re going to go on. They’re pretty resilient.”
Ashby Baptist tentatively is planning to meet in the building of a sister church in the area, while Rehobeth has a fellowship hall that wasn’t burned that they can use, Patrick said.
Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said the state convention is “working with the leadership of the Bibb Baptist Association to provide prayer support and damage assessment for these churches.”
“As quickly as possible, we anticipate having mobile chapels available for use by the two churches whose facilities were destroyed,” he said in a statement. “Also we’re providing some appropriate financial assistance for all four Bibb Association churches whose facilities were damaged or destroyed by fire.
“It’s only because of Alabama Baptists’ generosity through the Cooperative Program and the general disaster relief fund that we’re able to offer some financial assistance. This crisis illustrates how critical it is to support the Cooperative Program, associational missions and disaster relief on an ongoing basis.”